The Mahabharata highlights the exalted character of the grandsire of the Kurus and the Pandavas.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
The grandsire of the Kuru dynasty revealed to the Pandavas the secret to their bringing about his own demise.
An event occurred on the tenth day of the Kurukshetra war that had been widely considered impossible: the fall of Bhishma. That venerable grandsire had bested even his own teacher, Parashurama, who had been considered undefeatable. After all, who could defeat a warrior who had single-handedly defeated twenty-one generations of kshatriyas? Bhishma showed he could.
Death by One’s Own Words
The difficulty, even impossibility, of defeating Bhishma had weighed heavily on the Pandavas’ minds even before the war had started. On the war’s first day, just before the fighting began, Yudhishthira, accompanied by his brothers and Krishna, had approached his elders on the Kaurava side to seek their blessings. Additionally, he had the mortifying obligation to ask them how they could be killed; Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa were all formidable, near-undefeatable warriors.
When Yudhishthira approached Bhishma to seek the grandsire’s blessings, Bhishma assured him, “Because Krishna is with you, victory will be yours, O King.”
When asked how he could be killed, Bhishma replied, “The time for my death has not yet arrived; approach me later and I will tell you.”
On the dramatic ninth day, Krishna had to intervene to save Arjuna from Bhishma. That evening, the Pandava leaders conferred to discuss the next day’s strategy. Yudhishthira voiced his discouragement.
“Bhishma is undefeatable. If he can’t be stopped even by Arjuna, how can we ever fight against him?”
He had expressed similar feelings after the war’s first day, when Bhishma had devastated the Pandava army. As on that occasion, Krishna counselled and comforted Yudhishthira. But now, Krishna also recommended a specific action plan.
“O King, it is time that you go to Bhishma and ask him how he can be killed.”
Once again, Yudhishthira felt acutely the heavy burden that had been thrust on him ever since the war had been made inevitable by Duryodhana’s envy and defiance. Duty required him to do something that his heart just didn’t want to do: fight against his venerable elders. In addition, he had the thankless task, nay the dreadful duty, to ask his own grandsire how he could be killed.
When the Pandavas, along with Krishna, approached Bhishma and offered him their respects, the grandsire greeted them with a tranquil smile. He knew what was coming. When Yudhishthira asked the dreaded question, Bhishma replied calmly, as if he were talking about the weather, not about his own death.
“I have always fought honorably, following the kshatriya codes of warfare. And so I will till my last breath. I will not raise weapons against those without arms, those without armor, or those without the will to fight, wanting to flee or surrender. Nor will I raise weapons against those who are disabled, who are female, or who bear a female name.”
These codes were not unknown to the Pandavas. Seeing their quizzical looks, he explained how they contained the solution to their dilemma.
“Shikhandi, Drupada’s valiant and violent son, is your key to defeating me. I see him as the same person he was in his previous life: a woman. Even if he is a warrior now, I will not attack him. Place him at the head of your army and let Arjuna attack me from behind him.”
Shikhandi was the reincarnation of the princess Amba, who had been circumstantially left husbandless and had held Bhishma responsible for putting her in that position. Wanting to take revenge, she sought to appease Lord Shiva by performing severe austerities, culminating in her offering her very life. She was reborn as a warrior destined to kill Bhishma. That warrior was Shikhandi. Though he was not powerful enough to kill Bhishma on his own, he would still play a vital role in the killing of Bhishma. What that role would be became clear as the Pandavas heard Bhishma’s plan.
Agony, Anxiety, Serenity
After learning from Bhishma this unthinkable plan to take him down, the Pandavas offered him their respects and took their leave. While approaching the grandsire, Yudhishthira had felt most burdened. While they departed from him, it was Arjuna who felt a similar, if not greater, burden. Whereas Yudhishthira had to ask his own grandfather how he could be killed, Arjuna had to be the person to actually shoot the arrows that would kill Bhishma. He had known this was coming; in fact, before the start of the war, he had vowed to take down Bhishma; and during the war, he had fought several times with Bhishma. Yet a small part of him had hoped that maybe, somehow, he could get away from his duty and still achieve its purpose. That part of him was now silent, deadly silent.
When Dhritarashtra heard from Sanjaya about the Pandavas’ meeting with Bhishma, he was aghast.
“Why did Bhishma tell the Pandavas how they could kill him? How could that have been his duty?”
Thinking about the fall of the Kaurava commander, the blind king shuddered and fell silent.
When Duryodhana came to know about what the Pandavas planned to do, he was of two minds. A part of him was convinced that Bhishma couldn’t be killed, certainly not by the likes of Shikhandi. Nonetheless, another part of him urged caution. Accordingly, he ordered his foremost warriors to guard Bhishma carefully and to keep Shikhandi far away from him.
Though the grandsire’s words had triggered great agitation, anxiety, and activity around him, he seemed strangely calm, even ethereally serene. He was ready for what was coming. He had had a hard life. The world lauded him for his fierce vows, especially his vow of lifelong celibacy, but that had been the least difficult vow to keep. Far more difficult had been the vow to always defend the Kuru ruler, especially when that position was unofficially yet unreservedly handed over by the attached Dhritarashtra to his evil son Duryodhana. Most difficult had been to fight against the virtuous Yudhishthira, the heroic Arjuna, and his own worshipable Lord, Krishna. Today it would all end. While Bhishma’s devoted heart longed for it to end as quickly as possible, the kshatriya part within him knew the end would be preceded by a fierce fight – he couldn’t go down any other way.
Fighting While Not Fighting
When the battle finally began on the tenth day, the whole atmosphere seemed hushed, as if restrained by disbelief about what was to happen. As the two armies collided with each other, Bhishma was soon targeted by the combination of Arjuna and Shikhandi. Anticipating the danger to the grandsire, Duhshasana charged forward. Showing extraordinary brilliance in archery, he held back the advancing Pandava forces. But his inspired burst couldn’t last for long, and it was no match for Arjuna’s sustained class. Soon, Arjuna’s relentless stream of arrows forced Duhshasana to retreat and flee. The same fate met all the warriors appointed to guard Bhishma.
While the grandsire’s guardians were losing ground, he himself was gaining ground. Summoning all his expertise and experience in what was to be his last battle, he put up a martial exhibition that stunned both opponents and onlookers. When Shikhandi and Arjuna finally came close enough to attack him, he neglected them and kept fighting on another front. Following kshatriya codes, both Shikhandi and Arjuna challenged him to fight, but knowing that he couldn’t attack Arjuna without attacking Shikhandi, he didn’t respond to their challenge.
Shikhandi felt incensed on seeing that Bhishma was paying no attention to his challenge; it was as if the Kuru commander didn’t consider him worth fighting. Well, he would show what he could do. He cast aside any residual scruples about attacking a nonresponding warrior. His repeated challenges to Bhishma were warning enough. If Bhishma chose to neglect those warnings, that was Bhishma’s problem, not his. Reasoning thus, Shikhandi shot arrow after arrow at Bhishma. Though those arrows thudded into Bhishma, they seemed to affect him not in the least. Infuriated, Shikhandi shot more arrows into Bhishma’s body, but to no avail.
Suddenly, he saw the grandsire flinch. Turning to glare angrily in Shikhandi’s direction, Bhishma quickly turned back to his fight with another Pandava regiment. As arrows continued to afflict Bhishma, he spoke aloud to Duhshasana, who had recovered from his wounds and was trying to defend Bhishma.
“Shikhandi’s arrows don’t hurt me, but Arjuna’s are like thunderbolts that my body can no longer bear.”
It was then that Shikhandi realized what was happening. The arrows that had wounded Bhishma were coming from his direction, but not from him; they were coming from Arjuna, who was shooting from behind him. Repeatedly, Arjuna would emerge from behind Shikhandi, shower arrows on Bhishma, and then retreat behind Shikhandi. Shikhandi squelched his disappointment: even if he wouldn’t be the cause of Bhishma’s fall, he could still be a cause. Even if Arjuna’s arrows did most of the damage, he could still provide support and cover as Bhishma died by a thousand arrows. Maybe that was how he would fulfill the purpose of his birth.
Seeing Bhishma being hit by more and more arrows, the Kauravas tried to divert Arjuna. But the Pandavas had planned their strategy well; they had stationed several of their best warriors near Arjuna. Those warriors engaged and diverted anyone who tried to divert Arjuna. Even if some Kaurava warrior did reach near Arjuna, that famed archer was dexterous enough to repel them, while maintaining his assault on Bhishma.
Soon, Bhishma’s body was covered with arrows, like tall grass covering a mountain. Bhishma recognized that his wounds wouldn’t let him fight for long. Amid his pensive thoughts, he heard celestial voices.
“Your time on the earth is nearing its end. There’s no need for you to fight anymore.”
Recognizing the truth of those words, Bhishma felt a sublime sense of peace permeating his being. He lowered his bow and entered a prayerful mood. But his prayerfulness was interrupted by a fusillade of arrows piercing him. As pain shot through his body, his hand rushed to pick up his bow. He would go down fighting; there was no other way. As he resumed his attack on the Pandava forces, more arrows from Arjuna and Shikhandi kept piercing him, making fighting or even standing difficult.
Acceptance and Diligence on the Arrow-bed
Right before the Kauravas’ disbelieving eyes, their commander fell from his chariot. Because his body was covered with so many arrows, they obstructed his fall. He didn’t fall to the ground; he fell on an arrow-bed. To call the thing that kept Bhishma’s body above the ground a bed is euphemistic in the extreme. Whereas a good bed is usually arranged so that every part of it comforts our body, every part of Bhishma’s arrow-bed pierced his body.
Seeing Bhishma fall, the celestials cried out in alarm, “How can such a great soul die at the present inauspicious time?”
Raising his head slightly, Bhishma replied, “I am still alive.”
Onlookers remembered that he had the boon of iccha-mrityu, the power to die according to his desire.
Within moments, both the Pandavas and the Kauravas assembled around their fallen grandfather. They were all near tears. Even the wicked Duryodhana was distressed – he had just lost not only his army’s commander, but also his grandfather, who had always been kind to him, even when they had disagreed strongly on many things.
Duryodhana ordered that brahmanas expert in medicinal herbs and mantras be brought to treat Bhishma. But Bhishma firmly refused.
“I have no need for those now.”
When a tearful Yudhishthira asked Bhishma if they could serve him in any way at all, he replied, “I am afflicted by thirst. And my neck is hanging uncomfortably.”
When Duryodhana was about to order his servants to fulfill Bhishma’s requests, the grandsire again refused. He turned his head toward Arjuna, who immediately understood his grandfather’s intention.
Raising his bow, Arjuna carefully shot blunt arrows into the ground while chanting mystic mantras. Those arrows went into the ground and came out to offer support for Bhishma’s head. Then Arjuna closed his eyes to chant another mantra and shot an arrow deep into the earth. To everyone’s amazement, a stream of water sprang out of the earth where Arjuna’s arrow had pierced it. And that stream rose up and went straight into Bhishma’s mouth. Seeing Bhishma drinking that water with great reverence and spotting the personified goddess Ganga with the water, onlookers gasped. Arjuna had used his arrow to fetch water from the sacred Ganges River, thereby not just quenching his grandsire’s thirst, but also uniting the wounded warrior with his mother.
Turning to Duryodhana, Bhishma spoke.
“You have seen the prowess of Arjuna. With Krishna on their side, the Pandavas are undefeatable. Let the hostilities end with my fall.”
Though the Kaurava prince was shaken by the grandsire’s fall, his envy of the Pandavas wasn’t. His silence was answer enough.
Bhishma had known that his words were unlikely to work, but he had to try, just as he had tried to fight on that day, though he knew that his fall was unavoidable. He closed his eyes, waiting for the time when he would see the virtuous Pandavas victorious. He would live on till he saw their and Krishna’s glory. And so he did, departing eventually in the most auspicious of all settings: in Krishna’s presence.
A Less-spoken Dimension of Greatness
The world often glamorizes people who persist through great difficulties till they make life say yes. Such perseverance is laudable – by becoming more determined, we all can do greater justice to our God-given potentials and make better contributions to make the world a better place.
Simultaneously, we need to laud another vital dimension of greatness: the strength to accept a no gracefully. Suppose someone proudly declares, “I never take no for an answer.” What happens if no is the only answer they get? They will just not be able to accept it. They may disintegrate emotionally and degenerate ethically, becoming self-destructive or even outright destructive. If we don’t want to meet a similar fate, we need to learn to recognize the greatness in gracefully accepting when life says no.
Bhishma demonstrated greatness in its first dimension of making life say yes to one’s ambitions. Though born through a curse (he had been the head of the celestial Vasus and, because of an offense he made, had been cursed to be the only one among them to have to spend an entire lifetime on earth), and though raised by a single mother, he refused to stay stuck where life had landed him. By his diligence, he grew up to become a champion warrior in an age of many great warriors. As if that were not enough, he became so learned and wise that when he spoke, even sages would hear.
Additionally, and more importantly, he demonstrated greatness in its second dimension. When Bhishma fell, he held no one responsible for his fall. He didn’t blame Arjuna, whose arrows would kill him; he bore no anger toward Shikhandi, whose presence had prevented him from countering Arjuna’s lethal arrows; he expressed no anger at Duryodhana, whose greed and envy of the Pandavas had caused the war that had left him on this agonizing arrow-bed. He accepted that fate had constrained him to fight on the losing side. Yet he didn’t lose heart – or lose his heart to the losing side. He remained fixed in duty and devotion, fighting as long as he could and stoically accepting when he couldn’t.
Knowing that his fall was inevitable, he could have stopped fighting anytime. Yet he wanted to teach Duryodhana through his fall the lesson he had failed to teach through his words: the lesson that anyone opposing Krishna could never win. Because he fought fiercely till the end and was still defeated, he showed Duryodhana the undefeatable prowess of the Arjuna-Krishna duo. That Duryodhana didn’t learn the lesson only served to further underscore Bhishma’s greatness: he showed how to accept even Duryodhana’s refusal gracefully.
By appreciating both dimensions of greatness, we too can learn how to do our duty diligently and accept our destiny gracefully.